African-American pilots, who learned to fly in what the military originally called an experiment, shot down three German fighters during the longest bomber escort mission of World War II. In their B-17 Flying Fortresses, the pilots took out three Messerschmitt Me-262s on the way to Berlin during the 332nd Fighter Group’s March 24, 1945, mission.
Many of the pilots in the group, who would eventually become known as Tuskegee Airmen, were trained at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Ala., by an instructor everyone called “Chief.” C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson was perhaps best known for the flight he gave first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at Kennedy Field in 1941. But to many African-American pilots who made their mark during the war, he was the “beginning” of their aviation careers.
“He was one of the most persistent pioneers we’ve ever had, who paved the way for us to enjoy the benefits we’ve received as a result of the hard knocks he had to live through,” said Roscoe Draper, who joined Anderson as an instructor at Tuskegee in 1942. “Because of the experiences he had, I will always feel I owe him an awful lot, the way he opened doors for me. I had no aspirations to be a pilot, but when (Anderson) became chief pilot, he opened doors we could never approach otherwise.”
Anderson passed away in Tuskegee on April 13, 1996, but his granddaughter, Christina Anderson, created the C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson Legacy Foundation to preserve his legacy, as well as that of the Tuskegee Airmen, through educational programs, preservation of his original artifacts and providing scholarships for aviation students.
Anderson became interested in preserving her grandfather’s legacy when she attended a private screening of the “Double Victory” documentary at the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., Atlanta chapter, during publicity for the 2012 movie “Red Tails.” She said people kept coming to her with conflicting facts and questions about Anderson’s career and life, and she realized she had to be the source for information about her grandfather. So she gave up a career in human resources to start the non-profit organization.
“With me being involved in the big ‘Red Tails’ push, everywhere I went, it was confirmation after confirmation that he was loved by the Tuskegee Airmen,” Anderson said. “I remember I was back in Atlanta at a pre-screening of ‘Red Tails,’ and there were several living Tuskegee Airmen there, although some of them have died since. One of them came up to me, took my hand and said, ‘Your grandfather meant everything to me. He is the reason we are here.’”
There are plans for an 8-foot bronze statue of Anderson to be placed at Moton Field, Tuskegee’s municipal airport that was once the pre-flight training site for Tuskegee Airmen. The U.S. Postal Service plans to introduce a 70-cent stamp bearing Anderson’s likeness in March, and some of his artifacts will be placed in the Smithsonian Institution in 2015, she said.
From his early childhood in Bryn Mawr, Penn., Anderson wanted to be a pilot. He crashed the first plane he bought into a tree and had a scar across his forehead for the rest of his life. He saved enough money to take flying lessons, but no one would teach an African-American to fly. So Anderson bought a $2,500 Velie Monocoupe with money he had saved and borrowed from family and friends.
He made a deal with an experienced pilot named Russell Thaw, who taught Anderson to fly the Monocoupe during weekend visits to Atlantic City, N.J., to visit Thaw’s mother. Anderson earned his pilot’s license in August 1929.
With the help of Ernest H. Buehl, a German aviator who came to the United States to help open transcontinental airmail routes, Anderson became the first African-American to earn a Civil Aeronautics Administration air transport pilot’s license in 1932. A year later, he met Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, and they began making flights to introduce African-Americans to aviation, including the first transcontinental round-trip flight by black pilots. They flew their 95-horsepower Fairchild without a radio, navigational instruments or even parachutes.
While teaching pilots in the Washington, D.C., area, Anderson was hired as a flight instructor for Howard University’s Civilian Pilot Training Program. In 1940, Tuskegee Institute recruited him to develop a pilot training program and become the chief civilian flight instructor for black pilots. His students included the Air Force’s first African-American general, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., as well as Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Sr.
Later, Anderson became Tuskegee’s ground commander and chief instructor for aviation cadets in the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first all African-American fighter squadron. The 99th eventually joined three other squadrons of Tuskegee Airmen in the 332nd Fighter Group. Pilots in the group became known as the “Red Tails” because of the colors on their airplane’s tails. They flew 1,378 combat missions and destroyed 260 enemy planes.
Anderson was also known for utilizing an unusual partner in pilot training. He trained his dog Yo-Yo to help him detect unqualified pilots. Yo-Yo would fly with the pilot, and if he scratched the inside of the plane, Anderson knew he didn’t approve. For 50 years, he named every dog he had Yo-Yo, his granddaughter said.
After the war, Anderson trained both African-American and white students at Moton Field and began teaching Army and Air Force ROTC cadets in 1951. In 1967, he co-founded Negro Airmen International, which established a summer flight academy for young people who were interested in flying. He continued flying and instructing until his health began to falter in the 1990s.
Despite the role Anderson played in the nation’s history as the “Father of Black Aviation,” it wasn’t something he liked to discuss, his granddaughter remembers.
“He wouldn’t talk to anybody about it. He just refused,” Anderson said. “He viewed it as only a small part of his life, just a group of years when he happened to be doing this. For him, it was just a span of his life, and after it was over, he went into another part of his life. But what he would talk about was flying.”
The man the Tuskegee Airmen called “Chief” was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2013.
For more information about the life of Chief Anderson and the C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson Legacy Foundation, go to www.chiefanderson.com.